Monday, October 29, 2007

Law of Unintended Consequences

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Graduation from high school is a rite of passage. Teenagers become young adults. New paths are started. Parents have great expectations. Futures are open….

Then there is what has become known as “Grade-gate” in the Albuquerque Public Schools.

A Rio Grande High School senior’s failing English grade was changed to passing, ostensibly to allow him the social experience of graduating with his peers.

Teacher Anita Forte had sent five notices home and met with the parents attempting to work with the family to get his deficient schoolwork made up, but the student did not act within the time limits he had agreed.

Instead of requiring the student to go to summer school to pick up the missing credits, APS’ Rio Grande Cluster Leader/Director Dr. Elsy Fierro, in consultation with former APS Associate Superintendents Nelinda Venegas, left, and Susie Peck, right, overruled Forte and Rio Grande Principal Al Sanchez. They changed the student’s grade from an F to a D.

There was a public furor and the New Mexico Department of Public Education conducted an investigation. It was determined that the teacher and principal were right. Contrary to what the parents and APS Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt, above, and her subordinates, Venegas and Peck, said, the District violated its own policies.

The investigation, conducted by Dr. Mary Rose Cde Baca, concluded, “These actions appear to constitute a violation of Section, Standard II: Duty to the profession, of the New Mexico Public School Code of Ethics.” The report was published in the Tribune.

Everitt said in a press briefing, that the diploma would not be taken back.

Fierro, who changed the grade, is facing an ethics complaint from the PED in a hearing set before G.T.S. Khalsa.

The state wants to close the hearing. DPE’s lawyer, Bruce Berlin, is arguing that a federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, prohibits schools from identifying students.

Fierro’s attorney, Gail Stewart, and the Albuquerque Journal’s attorney, Matthew R. Hoyt have petitioned District Court Judge Nan Nash to keep the hearing open. Nash has stayed the DPE hearing until after Nov. 8 when she will hold a hearing on whether to keep the administrative process open to the public.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

In the real world this is unlikely to happen, but this was an unworldly event; or maybe more precisely, just the world of local politics. The young man’s parents are County Commissioner Teresa Cordova and former APS School Board Member Miguel Acosta, left.

Cordova is a Ph.D. Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico’s Southwest Hispanic Research Institute. She is seen here, below center with her, then husband Acosta, far right, at the March 15, 1999 City Council meeting where she made a rousing speech, taking a neutral position, during the otherwise contentious debate over the placement of a monument to Don Juan de Oñate in Old Town’s Tiquex Park. She was the driving force in getting her son’s grade changed.

In this case, Cordova took her son and went on a mini-media tour, which included appearing on a local talk radio show trying to defend their position. She claimed she was doing what any mother would do for her child.

A pattern of aggressive “defense” of her son emerged when evidence of her having complained to the Rio Grande Basketball coach about what she thought was a lack of playing time was made public.

Apparently, no one tried to negotiate a “win-win” situation. Maybe registering the student for summer school while asking the Rio Grande principal to allow the son to walk across the stage and receive the diploma folder might have sufficed. Diplomas are not mailed until a later date anyway. I know of just such a real life case happening in my family at the college level. Who knows, the answer might have been yes. It sure would have been easier than dealing with the mess it caused by changing the grade.

A quick Google check found the Bernalillo County Neighborhood News 2006 winter edition, profiling Cordova as a commissioner and identified her then 16-year old son as Jose Miguel Acosta.

The young man is currently listed on the UNM website, registered as a freshman in the University College on the main campus.

The FERPA only applies to schools and in this case, talking about a person who is as well- known in the public, as much by his own doing as any one else’s, invalidates the purpose of the law. FERPA is now being used as an excuse to provide a shield against justice being done as it was intended. The Law of Unintended Consequences is now in effect and it is doing no good.

So there are some questions:

If the State DPE determined that the policies were violated, isn’t the diploma void?

If the student did not make up the work of a mandatory required course, needed for graduation, in summer school, what does it do to his application to UNM, if he claimed to have graduated?

Was there fraud committed in his entering school at the university?

If so, how can his name be used as the excuse to not proceed openly on what is widely seen as a public corruption scandal? DPE wants to hold the ethics charge hearing, but in closed session.

I’ll tell you how; it’s called reverse scapegoating. It is an administrative ploy that I have observed over the years that allows for the exploitation of a flaw in the process or a failure in the presentation of a fact upon which an accused employee can “hang their hat.”

Administrators will never admit that it is occurring, but they actually admire the person who is able to “find the pea in the holiday pastry”, so the case fails and there is not an airing of all the dirty–laundry.

This is a case that calls for all the dirty laundry to be aired. The public needs to hold the leadership accountable. The top two paid administrators: APS Associate Superintendents Venegas and Peck, have retired. Everrett has announced that she is leaving later this year, at the end of her contract.

My take

Even if there were no explicit request for a favor, as a political office holder, the specter of an elected position and even a recently vacated position preceded the parents.

No one with the responsibility and power to look into this and act will do anything. The District Attorney will not take on a fellow elected officer. University officials are not going to look deeper into the application and admission of the child of one of their fellow faculty members.

The public now gets to grade the ethical performance of this group. I give them an F. Fortunately, there is no opportunity for them to turn in any make up work, because they have now dropped out.

The Board of Education, which stood steadfastly by these leaders during this mess while they did wrong, is now able to hire a truly competent and honest person to lead this school system. With all its other failures, from low-test scores to high drop out rates, this community needs the best for its aspiring students.

We must change that “F’ to a “D” to a “C” to a “B” and finally get it to an “A” level of work. It won’t happen by simply trying to make this case go away or sweeping it under the rug, but by doing the necessary work, on time and at a high level!

It is a challenge and hard work; just like graduating from high school….

Note: In the original posting I misidentified attorney Bruce Berlin as David Berlin. Apologies to both men and thanks to David Duhigg for catching the error.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Bravo for putting this out there!

I've always wondered why no one (other than me) brought Venegas and Peck into the conversation. All of these factors lead to pushing this mess into a corner of inaction and dismissal.

All of this should be brought to light but, instead, will fade into the political sunset.